What Flirting Really Means

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Today we're kicking off a brand new mini-series, exploring relationship myths perpetuated by rom-coms and fairytales, with help from therapist and relationship coach Esther Perel. First up, she tackles flirting — particularly, why we do it, even if we’re happily in love.

Q: My partner gets a kick out of flirting with other people when we’re out. Does that mean they're bored with me?

A: No, not exactly. “Flirting isn’t a sign of discontent, at all,” Perel says. “'Flirting' means ‘to tease,’ playing with stability. But it’s not scoring; American culture oftentimes confuses playing with scoring. Just playing with possibility isn’t an achievement.”

Merriam-Webster defines “to flirt” as “to behave in a way that shows a sexual attraction for someone but is not meant to be taken seriously.” By definition, flirting doesn’t mean your partner is looking for something else — it's not a serious play. “There’s very little to do with flirting that is about you being unhappy with a relationship — that is a construct,” Perel says.

Of course, your situation matters. Flirting in and of itself isn’t bad, but within certain contexts, it can indicate other issues you and your partner might be dealing with. “If your partner is always flirting in front of you and not paying attention to you, that has more to do with disrespect,” Perel says. “The flirting is a way in which the disrespect is manifesting. It’s like if I’m always looking at my phone instead of talking to you.”

Same goes if you’re the one flirting. “Anything we do can become problematic, depending on how we do it,” Perel says. “If you flirt because you like to know that you still have that mojo, that’s fun. If you do it every time you see something that’s alive and moves, or you need to check, ‘Do I exist? Am I noticed? Am I worthy?’ then flirting is not the issue. The insecurity is the issue.”

Generally, the flirting rule depends on the couple, and what each partner sees in the act of flirting. “With many couples, there is an understanding that you are a sexual being, you might be flirting on occasion, and there’s an innocence to it,” Perel says. However, if that's not the case, the interaction might not be considered flirting, but rather something more ominous. “The essence of flirting is that there is genuinely an innocence to it. It only becomes a problem when there is no innocence to it.”

Have a question about relationships for Esther Perel? Leave it in the comments below, and we'll choose one to answer on July 12.

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